Len Corben is very well-known on the North Shore for his writing and commitment to athletics; a commitment that includes 31 years as the coordinator for North Shore Secondary School athletics, and as an accomplished writer with his Instant Replay stories that regularly appear in the North Shore Outlook. Having previously enjoyed his first book, an anthology of his newspaper features, it was great to catch up with Len and also read his latest book based on hours of research and interviews with Ernie Kershaw: The Pitching Professor: The Life & Times of Ernie Kershaw.
The book was of particular interest to me as Ernie Kershaw began his teaching career at West Vancouver Secondary School at about the time my grandfather, Charles Kennedy, was teaching at the school in the late 1930s. And, personally, as a history teacher and huge baseball fan (Field of Dreams is in my all-time top three movies), it’s difficult to imagine anything more appealing than a slice of local history with a backdrop of education filled with baseball stories.
The story starts with Ernie Kershaw’s birth on October 6, 1909, and as he describes it in the book, “My birth was premature at seven months and I started my career at two-and-a-half to three pounds in a shoe box in the warming oven of our Gurney-Oxford kitchen range, being for some time fed partly with honey and water via an eye dropper.” With Spanish influenza and typhoid fever also part of his childhood experiences, Kershaw went on to play semi-professional baseball for the Vancouver Capilanos from 1939-41 and again in 1946 after serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II.
Kershaw was playing baseball at the same time as many of history’s most storied individuals, and the book links to Babe Ruth and others, while also telling the stories of the grassroots stars in Vancouver, in the era before Larry Walker and Justin Morneau. Of course, Kershaw’s “big curveball and humming fastball” are also highlighted from his 4-0 five-hitter in his pro debut against the Yakima Pippins at Athletic Park on Hemlock Street, to a post-war performance described by Province columnist, Ken McConnell: ” Kershaw came back from the war fat and sassy. He has a sweeping curveball that even [umpire] Amby Moran seemed to have difficulty following and his fast one sings as it burst across the plate.”
It was not an era of “just” being a baseball player – Kershaw was also a teacher.
Kershaw says of his teaching experience “In September 1936, I found myself back in the classroom” where he taught until 1941 and then again after the war from 1945-1973. The book overlays Kershaw’s stories of West Vancouver with stories of many other well-known figures in West Vancouver including Dick Wright, Bill Nicol and Brian Upson. All well-known names who come to life in Kershaw’s stories and through Corben’s words. The stories also tell of a teacher making sense out of algebra for more than three decades of West Vancouver students – so proud of their accomplishments - he shares a real pay-it-forward legacy.
Notable for his teaching and his baseball, Kershaw also acknowledges he is notable for his longevity (the story is subtitled - One of Professional Baseball’s Oldest Living Former Players):
My first 50 years were quite unusual and interesting because of the variety of my interests and activities in a period which included a major epidemic, two great wars, several booms and depressions and the rise and collapse of many regimes and nations. By sheer chance, I found myself at some critical places at historically important times. As a result, I met many famous and talented people in various fields and from many countries.
Almost a Forrest Gump style story.
Ernie Kershaw died on February 13, 2012 at the age of 102. In a story in the book, relayed by his son Ian, “When it was close to Dad’s time,” Ian recounted, “I said to him ‘Dad, I guess this is the bottom of the ninth for you.’ He replied, ‘It’s more like the bottom of the 12th.’”
Corben’s book and Kershaw’s story are a wonderful window into our recent history — a story about baseball and a whole lot more for those interested in sport, history, education and community – a really wonderful read.
To order a copy of the book or for more information, contact Len Corben.